Friday, September 21, 2012

More Than One Way to be Religious

More Than One Way to be Religious

“Prophet” Cindy Jacobs recently declared that weather hazards and ecological problems are the result of divine wrath in response to presidential decisions. And without offering specifics, she prognosticated that more calamities are on the way. Of course, it’s a safe bet that something unhappy will happen somewhere. It doesn’t take a great psychic gift to make that guess!

Before this embarrassing statement suggesting that weather is caused by the gods and “bad” weather is the result of divine displeasure I had never heard of Ms. Jacobs, but I’ve heard her kind of blame, shame, and scare theology all too often.

I spend my life building religious community. I offer a message of hope and healing to help people navigate the chances and challenges of life. I try to affirm the sacred value of all people. I work to get people to stand up and speak out for peace, diversity, equality, and justice. That is, in my view, is religion's high purpose.

Religion gives us language and space to celebrate joys, face difficulties, and form human bonds that prove to be the cure for loneliness. Religion is not meant to increase our fears, strengthen our prejudices, or give us enemies to blame for the uncertainties of life.

Hurricanes, earthquakes, heat-waves, blizzards, and even terrorist attacks have all been blamed on liberals, pro-choice politicians, same-gender loving people, and whoever else rightwing extremists might name as the reason for misfortune that they insist is Heaven sent.

I remember at the beginning of the AIDS crisis some preachers claiming that the disease was God’s punishment against people who Christian fundamentalists found to be unworthy of respect or even tolerance. Almost as reprehensibly, many other clergy remained silent as people continued to suffer and die from the then little understood but clearly devastating disease.

I don’t know why anyone would choose to embrace an understanding of spirituality that suggests a deity will send disease or any disaster. Such petty instance that everything unpleasant is proof that a supreme being hates all the people they hate makes religion seem irrelevant and oppressive; it also makes representatives of religion seem more committed to hatred and bigotry than to enlightenment and progress.

As a representative of religion (progressive religion, but religion nevertheless), I very much resent that religion is so often misused and I wish to offer a better, kinder, more reasonable, and more useful understanding of faith.

It is the worst sort of opportunism to use tragedies as a means of promoting hatred and intolerance. The appropriate response to tragedy is compassion, not blame. The best use of religion in times of trouble is to offer comfort, not condemnation. And if we listen to the “better angels of our nature” we will affirm human dignity in the face of chaos rather than using chaos as a weapon to further dehumanize those we may not understand or like.

We are each entitled to our own understanding of the Sacred, of course. But I, as a religious person, will have no deity that would not bless same-gender love, that would send storms to punish many just to torment a few, or that would send rather than heal disease.

But thankfully, there are other understandings of the ultimate reality that many of us call “God.” Some of us believe, teach, and experience the divine as a comforting presence, an urge to do good, the capacity to love, forgive, and share, and a deep desire to bring peace, hope, and healing to all people.

We are each entitled to our own understandings, but I for one will always choose those that build up rather than tear down, that heal rather than hurt, and that affirm diversity rather than demand division. I just wanted another religious voice to be heard today.

Durrell Watkins holds sociology and theatre degrees from Henderson State University and Goddard College, respectively, as well as a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Episcopal Divinity School. He is the author of Wrestling with God without Getting Pinned: Old Stories, New Thoughts, & Progressive Spirituality (Outskirts Press, available at, and is the Senior Pastor of the Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale (

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